American happiness is plummeting. Could a few words change that?

“A psychologist claims that learning ‘untranslatable words’ from other cultures may be a key to being happy. I experimented on myself to see whether it’s true.”

Sigal Samuel, writing in Vox magazine, says:

“‘Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.’

Screw that.

The saying, sometimes attributed to the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, cautions us to not pursue happiness aggressively; we’ve got to just let it come to us. But for many of us today, such 19th century romantic musings seem quaint, if not downright un-American.

The pursuit of happiness inscribed into the Declaration of Independence has grown into a national obsession. We compulsively compare ourselves to others, asking whether they’re happier than we are and why, and then we buy — a yoga studio membership, an empowerment seminar, an $80 Goop water bottle with a built-in rose quartz crystal — to stop losing the competition.

I admit that I, too, zealously hunt down happiness these days. I’ve had a rough couple of years. My dad had a heart attack. My apartment was burglarized. My knees were gripped by chronic pain so intense that, for a while, I could barely walk.

So when I stumbled across the work of Tim Lomas, I pounced on his books, butterfly net in hand. A lecturer at the University of East London, Lomas specializes in a field known as positive psychology, the study of what makes human beings happy. Not just happy in the narrow sense, like the fleeting joy you get from ice cream, but in the broader sense of human flourishing — what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia. Positive psychologists research which factors are the biggest contributors to well-being, from income level to relationships to religiosity.

Lomas has recently published a trio of works on the connection between well-being and language: The Happiness Dictionary, Translating Happiness, and Happiness Found in Translation, his illustrated chapbook published this fall. In them, he says most of us in the West aren’t as happy as we could be, in part because we have a limited definition of happiness. Other cultures have concepts of well-being that are vastly different from ours, but because they’re expressed in languages we don’t understand, Lomas argues, we’re missing out on the insights they embody …”

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